The firing of Peter Strzok, the FBI agent at the center of much of the political swirl surrounding the origins of the Special Counsel’s investigation, immediately spurred speculation that he was ousted as a result of political pressure on an already embattled organization. Strzok was one of the senior FBI officials who, along with former Director James Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, have left the Bureau in ways they never could have imagined. But based on my experience as a senior FBI agent, his dismissal may well be part of an effort to re-assert its nonpartisan credibility.
Strzok was a career agent with an excellent reputation and work ethic. He served most of his career in the often underappreciated (until recently) ranks of counterintelligence at the FBI. He was likeable, respected, and articulate, as he demonstrated most recently during his very public appearance in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in July. I am just one of the FBI agents who is sad to see him leave this way.
The Bureau is routinely under some form of political pressure, especially with investigations into allegations of wrongdoing by public officials. In 2016, during an investigation of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the FBI was under even greater pressure to deliver either an indictment or an exoneration. The politicization of the FBI only became worse when then-Director Comey’s press conference accomplished neither. In hindsight, this increased scrutiny put the agency at the center of many debates calling into question its organizational credibility.
To be sure, the Bureau did not get into this position without help from unprecedented public and personal attacks and constant belittling from political forces. Tweets from President Donald Trump and broad statements condemning FBI public servants only served to exacerbate the Bureau’s situation.
The public anticipation for the results of the investigation by the Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) regarding the actions of Comey and McCabe continued to publicly call into question the ethics of an entire organization. In the report of the investigation, the IG critiqued Bureau leadership under Comey for numerous issues in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email practices. The IG also singled out Strzok for criticism for demonstrating a willingness to let his bias color his official conduct, though the IG also said there was no evidence of such action being taken.
So, when FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich made the decision to fire Strzok on Aug. 10, it was seen by many as unprecedented and therefore political. But for the reasons below, I do not believe that to be the case.
The investigation and the decision process at the FBI’s Office Professional Responsibility (OPR) is an arduous one. I can only imagine the length and detail of this investigation, with many intersecting personal and professional aspects. As if those dynamics were not complicated enough, the investigation had to be conducted in the midst of overwhelming political noise outside the FBI and turmoil and leadership changes within the agency. As part of any internal investigation by OPR, once a decision is made relative to the nature of the offenses and sanctions are recommended, the agent is notified and generally given an opportunity to appeal.
According to press reports, the OPR recommended a demotion and a suspension of 60 days. Strzok’s attorney, Aitan Goelman, told news media that the usual opportunity to appeal to a five-person Disciplinary Review Board (DRB) was bypassed. As deputy director, Bowdich has the authority to accept or reject personnel recommendations. It is well within his purview. While not employed often, this authority exists as part of the long-established process.
This decision also was not unprecedented. Bowdich inserted himself in another recent FBI employment matter, that of Said Barodi. He was an FBI intelligence analyst accused of unprofessional misconduct after an interaction with federal agents at a U.S. airport upon his return from an overseas trip. Barodi was fired as a result, but appealed his dismissal. A review by the DRB reduced the sanctions and supported his reinstatement. However, upon review of the information, Bowdich stepped in early this year and again fired Barodi.
While people outside the FBI are naturally drawn to making assertions about political impact, Bowdich has to be more focused on the internal effect on the organization. He, Wray, and other senior leaders at the FBI have the responsibility of leading the agency through what most consider to be among the most contentious periods of its history.
Externally, regardless of what decision was made on Strzok’s employment status, the Bureau was going to be second-guessed. It is in a no-win position. Internally, however, this decision makes clear to everyone that FBI leadership is setting strict boundaries and they are not afraid to enforce them. Unfortunately for Strzok, despite his otherwise excellent career record and reputation, FBI leadership had to focus on the long-term outcome for the organization, not on the results for one agent.
To do its job effectively, the FBI must be an organization that earns the public’s trust and support. The Bureau can have no appearance of personal or political bias, despite the First Amendment right of each and every FBI employee to political opinions and expression. This decisive act sends a strong internal message to the rank-and-file about their duty of impartiality in official matters. But it also sends a message to the broader public that the FBI takes its credibility seriously.
Photo: Then-Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok testifies before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, July 12, 2018 – Getty Images